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Gardening Shortcuts from the Dirt Diva

Annie Spiegelman, master gardener, passionate environmentalist and author, whose books include Talking Dirt (Perigee Trade, 2010), shares her advice for the gardener who, well, isn't actually a gardener but really wants to try.

It's OK to buy plant starts

Gardeners, especially novice gardeners shouldn't feel bad about buying plant starts instead of sowing their own seeds. We're not all Martha Stewart, ya know! For the rest of us, I say support your local nursery and buy plant starts. Your edible crops or flowers will grow quicker and make you feel like a winner, so you won't give up on gardening. (Mother Nature needs us all off the computer and outside in our yard!)

Sowing seeds directly in the ground or using seed pots takes perfect weather, good organic potting mix in containers or healthy ground soil amended with compost, steady watering, and loads of patience! If you have an iota of patience and you're up for the challenge, you can't beat the price tag of growing by seed'pennies for a head of lettuce. My summertime recommendations for the easiest crops to grow directly into the ground are lettuce, squash or herb seeds, in an area that receives at least 4-6 hours of sunlight. For easy flowers to grow by seed, try Mexican Sunflower, Nigella, Bachelor Buttons or Calendula. My favorite place to buy seeds? Glad you asked! I always support seed companies who have non-GMO, heirloom and organic seeds. These three companies have gorgeous varieties!

It's OK to buy compost

If you have reasons for not composting, there are ways to obtain good quality compost in your 'hood. Meet your local farmer or the guy at your landfill site and see if they are creating their own compost on the farm or from the town's food scraps, as they are doing here in the Bay Area where I live. Aged compost from your local area is filled with billions of creepy living microorganisms that will feed your garden soil with nutrients and make you the gardening star-student of your neighborhood! Compost that sits at the big chain stores in plastic bags has lost most of its life and sometimes even comes from another country. (Are we nuts? Shipping in compost!) Find a local source. Whether you buy it or make your own, adding a few inches of compost to your yard each spring and fall will keep your plants healthy, reduce your water bill by holding in more moisture and help beat bug infestations and plant diseases, allowing you to give away all those toxic pesticides sitting in your shed. (Call 1-800-clean-up to find out where you can drop them off.)

Trust me; compost will become your new best friend. I have a farmer friend locally who sells compost, aged from his organically fed cows and horses, aptly called Doule Doody. (Yup! That's the name.) It's so powerful that I have no need to purchase any fertilizer or pesticide.

It's OK to start small

A few years ago, I pulled out my large, cranky front lawn and replaced it with native and drought-tolerant plants, and I have never looked back; but boy, was it hard work. My advice: Start small and—sorry, there's that word again—you'll need some patience. Bit by bit is better. Take small sections of your yard or lawn and focus on that area only. Instead of digging areas out, learn how to sheet mulch. (Google it!) This way you're slowly killing the old lawn or weeds and bringing in new soil organisms in the piles of compost and mulch you'll be adding. You'll then be able to plant that area of your yard in 3-6 months with new plants. No patience for that? Then try this: Pick a small sunny area and put in a raised bed to grow edibles in. This summer I've seen some gorgeous raised beds that snap together with no tools or digging. You just place the four sides on your grass or ground, fill it with 2 parts fresh soil and 2 parts compost and you're ready to plant!

Good luck, my sweet kumquats. Stay strong, pilgrim! We need you out there farming food, growing flowers sustainably and protecting the soil for future generations.

'Dirt Diva